CLR INTERVIEW: David Lida has lived and worked as a journalist in Mexico City for 15 years. His new book, First Stop in the New World, describes the vibrant, international megalopolis that he calls home. Below is David’s interview with the California Literary Review.
- First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century
- Riverhead, 352 pp.
To which city in the world would you say Mexico City is most comparable?
Who said comparisons are odious? Nearly all cities in Latin America have in common corruption, poverty and crime, as well as shocking inequality. But with neoliberal governments, an unjust distribution of wealth is becoming the norm. Even in wealthy countries, working people are earning lower salaries, fewer benefits and have less free time. Simply put, the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer; I wonder if the rest of the world isn’t coming around to Mexico City. In general, I believe that Mexico City is emblematic of the megacities that have grown monstrously in the last few decades around the world: Shanghai, Mumbai, Lagos, Istanbul, etc. If you understand how Mexico City works, you can at least begin to comprehend how all of those cities function.
Would you give us an overview of Mexico City’s economy and how its citizens survive financially?
Many are under the impression that Mexico City is an impoverished place, but it is in fact crawling with money. It has one of the highest GDPs of any city in the world. The problem is that the wealth is miserably distributed. The richest man in the world – Carlos Slim Helú, who has a virtual monopoly on telecommunications in Mexico and is worth about $70 billion USD – lives in Mexico City. (Sometimes, due to fluctuations in the stock market, he is merely the second richest man in the world, edged out by Bill Gates.)
Yet at the same time, half of the city’s population – some 10 million people – live at the poverty level. About 15 per cent live below the poverty line. About half of Mexico City makes its living from the informal economy, principally selling things on the street, but also cleaning people’s homes, cleaning industrial buildings, delivering packages and so on.
Most of those people survive, treading water so to speak, while some even manage to claw their way out of poverty. While the way they live would be considered very close to the margin by the standards of the U.S. or Europe, compared to the billion or so people who go to bed hungry every night, they are not doing too badly. Anyone who starves to death in Mexico City is an anomaly.
I try to tell some of their stories in FIRST STOP IN THE NEW WORLD. There is a chapter about the distribution of wealth that includes profiles not only of Carlos Slim, but of Jerónimo, a man who sells newspapers on the street and has managed to take two vacations a year and build a house in his home town with the proceeds.
You believe that Mexico City is on its way to becoming the “capital of the Spanish-speaking world.” Why do you think that?
I know I won’t make any friends in Madrid or Barcelona with that statement, but I truly believe that, no matter how many immigrants have moved to Spain, it remains culturally Spanish, without a great deal of outside influence. Meanwhile, Mexico City feels more culturally international all the time. While the populations of foreigners are relatively small, they have made a great impact here, far more than in any other Latin American city. On any given night in Mexico City, you can have roast duck in a Polish restaurant, go to see a Romanian or a Japanese film, and then go to the Bar Zinco and hear a jazz band from Europe, the U.S. or South America. The other night I went to a Korean bar-restaurant for a late dinner, and the waitress gave me a menu in Korean. They didn’t have a Spanish menu; she had to explain to me what they served.
Too much planning can stifle the natural growth of a city, but unplanned sprawl seems an even worse alternative. But chaotic growth seems to be one of the things you like about Mexico City.
It isn’t so much that I like chaotic growth. But it is a reality experienced by many, if not most, city dwellers in the world today, in cities like those I just mentioned. I truly admire how resilient and ingenious the people of Mexico City are despite all the problems caused by the chaos. The chaotic growth inspires their ingenious survival mechanisms The chaotic growth is also in a way inspiring because it means that one is constantly improvising one’s existence here, and no two days are alike. For example, getting around is such a challenge that it is useful to have a Plan B prepared, in case you end up unable to get where you are going.
You refer in the book to people as being either white or brown, and it comes across as synonyms for rich or poor. Is there an economic division in Mexico that breaks down along racial lines? How did that come about and what tension does that cause?
While it is true that something over 90 percent of the Mexicans are mestizo – a hybrid between white Spanish and brown indigenous – it is crystal clear that, along general lines, the whiter that you are, the more privileged a position you are likely to enjoy here. I think the basis of this division goes back to the conquest by white Spaniards in the 16th century. Except for a few lucky ones, the indigenous were basically a slave class that served the Spanish. Having said that, I would add that Mexico is even more classist than it is racist. There is a pointillistic attention to social class, along the lines of England or India. If you go to a street market, the man who sells you fruit might actually be whiter than you, better dressed and better groomed. But because of the social contract, he will toady to you by calling you jefe (boss), patrón (master) or even güero (whitey). I have an olive-skinned friend who hates that she is called güera by salespeople. Regardless of her darker skin, the way in which she dresses, wears her hair and speaks mark her as someone from a more elevated social class than the vendors.
I like what you say about Mexican children being so well mannered. I’ve found that to be true for children in South America as well. To what do you attribute that, and is it changing with the influence of American culture?
Mexican families, and Latin American families in general, are much closer-knit than their counterparts in the U.S. or Europe. One of the consequences is that children are more obedient to their parents. There is also, unfortunately, a lot of violence within the family here that might serve, at least in some instances, to keep the kids in line.
I’m sure there’s a version of this joke in Italy, but why are Mexicans certain that Jesus was a Mexican?
Because he lived at home until he was 33, he never had a job, his mother believed he was God and he believed she was a virgin.
For people looking to visit Mexico City for a few days, where would you recommend that they stay and which places should they be sure to visit?
If you only have a few days to stay, I would recommend the centro histórico, which is the oldest and most interesting part of the city. All the centuries of Mexico’s history are piled one atop each other in this area. Just in the zócalo, the central square, there is an Aztec temple, a cathedral and a National Place built during the Spanish Conquest in the 1600s, the National Palace and other government buildings constructed after the Independence in the early 19th century. Right around the corner, there’s a Starbuck’s. I would recommend wearing out as much shoe leather as you can bear in the centro. Keeping in mind that, all in walking distance, you’ve got murals by Diego Rivera, the National Museum, the Museum of Bellas Artes, a restaurant from the late 19th century decorated in Belle Epoque style called La Ópera, and a great jazz club called Bar Zinco, which just opened a few years ago. The best cantinas in the city are in the centro, and I definitely recommend a boozy lunch in one such as La Mascota at the corner of Bolivar and Mesones – excellent food is served free with the price of your drinks.
You’re the only person I know who’s been the victim of a kidnapping. Would you tell us what happened and how that reflects on the level of crime in Mexico City?
I’m the only one? You’ve got to come here, I could introduce you to plenty more.
Today I can joke about it but I assure you it was an anguished experience. In 1996, my ex-wife and I were victims of what is called a secuestro express – an express kidnapping. We got into a taxi cab one night, and at a stop sign two gorillas barreled in and held us up at knifepoint. We drove around in circles on the inner-city freeways while a colleague of theirs tried to withdraw cash from ATMs with our credit cards. This lasted for about two hours until they dumped us on a dark street corner in a neighborhood near the airport.
Having said that, I can assure you that, from the research I did for the extensive chapter in the book about crime, that the crime rate has gone down in Mexico City in the past seven or eight years, and that the perception of danger in the city, even in the worst of times, outstripped the reality. Just yesterday I read an article in a magazine that said that more than half of the major TV newscast in Mexico is devoted to crime reports. Certainly there is a lot more going on here than crime and violence. I believe they broadcast this stuff because the sensationalism sells ads, and because it is a way of diverting citizen’s attention from more serious problems, like the poor distribution of wealth and the many ways that the government is letting them down.
What’s more, if we are to believe FBI statistics, you are a lot more likely to be murdered in Washington D.C. than in Mexico City. The same goes for Philadelphia, St. Louis, Las Vegas, and any number of U.S. cities. Roughly the same number of people is killed every month in Caracas as those killed during an entire year in Mexico City.
In a city where the government is ineffective, where it’s impossible to distinguish between law enforcement and the criminals, where most of the economy is underground and people live by their wits, Mexico City functions amazingly well. It might serve as the “poster city” for the Libertarian Party. What are your thoughts on the political implications?
I believe politicians and political parties are failing their constituents all over the world. I devoted a chapter in FIRST STOP IN THE NEW WORLD to politics. Given the enormous level of corruption that exists in Mexico City, and the fact that politicians are so highly paid here – many earn more than their counterparts in the U.S. or Europe – the citizens are perhaps worse off than in other places in the world, and are definitely not being served by the system. Once again, though, I would have to point out how much I admire those here who live by their wits through the underground economy. They have a very tough road. Most of them at least stay afloat, and some even manage to thrive.
Related Links: David Lida’s website